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30 October 1996

Behind the crisis in Eastern Zaire

Barry Crawford of Africa Direct explains how the West helped drive Hutu refugees from the camps on the Rwandan border

A fifteen mile procession of Hutu refugees are fleeing the approach of the Tutsi Banyamulenge rebels from Eastern Zaire. The Hutus left the camps on the Zaire/Rwanda border that acted as refuges from the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front regime. Now the exile Tutsi population in Zaire has rebelled against the Mobutu government and threatens to catch the Hutus in a pincer between the RPF in Rwanda and the Banyamulenge in Zaire.

Despite the obvious humanitarian disaster, sympathy for the Hutu refugees from the aid agencies and the media has been muted and begrudging. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) responded to the upheaval by closing down its operations in the camps on the Rwandan border. Aid destined for the refugees is stuck many miles away in Uganda. Both the aid agencies and the UNHCR has admonished the refugees to return to Rwanda, where they fear government persecution. What lies behind the hostility to the Hutu refugees?

There are three dynamics at work in eastern Zaire that are generating the current crisis.

1. The criminalisation of Rwandan Hutu refugees

According to the UNHCR and the aid organisations it is the Hutu extremists of the infamous Interahamwe militia that are forcing Hutus to flee Rwanda. Trying to explain away the genuine fear of Hutu refugees of persecution as the result of Interahamwe agitators is grotesque. Seeing all problems in terms of Hutu extremism has blinded the aid organisations to the humanitarian disaster on their own doorstep. Instead of providing assistance, these organisations have contributed to the criminalisation of the very refugees that are fleeing persecution. Either Hutus refugees are seen as willing collaborators with the Interahamwe by the UNHCR, or as simple-minded saps influenced solely by Interahamwe propaganda. But the refugees' unwillingness to return to Rwanda has a more straightforward explanation. They do not trust the UNHCR and they fear prosecution at the hands to the Rwandan Patriotic Front - not least because of the show-trials of Hutus currently being conducted under the auspices of the United Nations there.

2. Western destabilisation of Zaire

The attitude of the United States towards the Zairean government is a matter of record. US ambassador Daniel Simpson challenged 'freedom loving people around the world, especially those living in Canada and the United States, to be as impatient as possible with the Mobutu government's failure to transition Zaire to democracy, and to look ahead now to the great task of rebuilding the new Zaire of the future'. Interference in the affairs of Africa is a right often claimed by the Western powers. In the name of 'democracy' Simpson is advocating the overthrow of the Zairean government in favour of a new Zaire. The Banyamulenge organisation of Tutsis in Zaire's eastern province seem to have taken him at his word.

3. Outside support for the Banyamulenge

Despite claims that the Banyamulenge have been disarming it is clear that they have been receiving substantial military support for some time. The RPF government, backed by Western powers, especially the United States, is lending support to the Banyamulenge. Drawing its numbers from Zairean Tutsis, the Banyamulenge is closing in on the Hutu refugee camps on the border. Hutu experience of the Tutsi RPF army means that they are unlikely to wait to find out how the Banyamulenge will treat them.

The tragedy unfolding in Eastern Zaire is not just a matter of ethnic hatreds, or of Hutu extremism, or even of the change- resistant Mobutu regime in Zaire. Western intervention favoured the Rwandan Patriotic Front's victory in 1994. In doing so the West has disturbed the balance within this impoverished and volatile region. The Banyamulenge uprising in Zaire is just the latest repercussion of the Western intervention. For the Tutsi regimes in Rwanda and Burundi the revolt looks set to add to the Tutsi ascendancy in the region. For the refugees on the Rwandan border it is a disaster made in the West.
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